By Matt Popchock
We talked about the teams to watch in the WPIAL at the beginning of July, so now, as we work our way through August, we move forward with our preseason football coverage by looking at some of the players to watch throughout the 2011 campaign.
Rarely is there a clear-cut favorite in WPIAL Class AAAA, where some of the best young players in all of Pennsylvania compete, which makes it just as difficult to determine the brightest stars, hence the longer-than-expected delay in presenting our short list. Well, okay, that and the fact that “Mr. High School Sports” realized a while back he was overdue a vacation.
But he’s happily home again, and he’s ready to break down what Quad-A has to offer in 2011. One of the names he drops should sound familiar, because he’s already built such an incredible athletic legacy and has been recognized for it. Another should sound familiar, even though it’ll be on the back of a different uniform. Another won’t be familiar at all…unless you follow high school basketball.
Here are five players we’ll be keeping an eye on in Class AAAA:
Luke Hagy, RB, Mount Lebanon: Perhaps none of the Blue Devils take after head coach Chris Haering more than Hagy, the 2010-11 Post-Gazette Male Athlete of the Year, who is as unafraid of contact as he is quick-witted and sure-handed. He excelled at three varsity sports to earn that honor, but his greatest accomplishments came on the football field, where, as a junior, he finished fourth in the WPIAL and second in Class AAAA with 1,649 yards rushing, averaging nearly eight per carry, and 23 total TD’s during the regular season, which made him the second-leading scorer in his classification. Pitt is one of the Division I schools that has extended him an offer, and it should be fun to see him match skills with another star tailback Pitt has its sights on, Hopewell’s Rushel Shell, Sept. 23.
Dakota Conwell, QB, Upper St. Clair: He re-established the Panthers as one of the top teams in the classification last year, and with a verbal commitment to Pitt to play outside linebacker now under his belt, his exceptional versatility makes USC an immediate contender in Quad-A once again. Conwell led Jim Render’s squad with 3.5 sacks and collected 64 tackles at that position in 2010, but when you put the ball in his hands, that’s when you must, in the words of T.O., get your popcorn ready. He completed 54.8% of his passes during the regular campaign for 802 yards and four scores, but did just as much damage on the ground, scrambling for 801 yards and amassing 15 total touchdowns, and adding almost 400 all-purpose yards in the playoffs.
Isaiah Faulk, RB, North Allegheny: One of the reasons Jack McCurry of North Hills hasn’t expressed a ton of optimism about his 2011 squad is that Faulk, who helped spearhead the Indians’ offense last year, has transferred to their hated rivals for his senior season, and he’ll likely become the focal point of Art Walker’s offense with the graduation of workhorse and playoff hero Alex Papson. Faulk scored five touchdowns on the ground and averaged four yards per carry in limited action last year, and it’ll be real interesting to see how well he fares as a featured back with one of the best offensive lines in the classification to protect him.
Barnett Harris, WR, Gateway: If you’re looking for 2010 stats for this incoming senior, don’t bother. He hasn’t played a single snap of high school ball…ever. The only numbers we would have on him are any that head basketball coach Mitch Adams might have kept during the Gators’ run to the WPIAL hoops title–oh, and, by the way, he’s 6’10″ and thin as a wire. So what’s he doing on the gridiron? Apparently veteran coach Terry Smith has recruited Harris, who is being recruited for basketball by a number of D-1 schools (including Duquesne and Robert Morris), to join the football team as a wide receiver. He’s a very capable athlete, but can he be effective? At least he’s got the stamp of approval from Smith, one of the most respected coaches in Quad-A, and if he does make an impact for Gateway, it would be a feel-good story for a community that, with all sensitivity intended, could probably use a feel-good story.
Damion Jones-Moore, RB, Pgh. Central Catholic: With so many extraordinary running backs poised for big years in the WPIAL, sometimes it’s easy to forget this senior is among the cream of the crop, and you’d better believe the Vikings are the cream of the crop in Class AAAA entering this season with Jones-Moore in the backfield. A midseason groin injury put a damper on his junior campaign, but he still helped carry Central to the semifinals and racked up 1,089 rush yards and 20 TD’s in the process, averaging six yards per attempt. If he can stay healthy, Jones-Moore, who may play ball in the MAC next year, can soon become (unofficially) the 47th 4,000-yard career rusher in WPIAL history, and stands a very real chance of breaking Eugene Jarvis’ seven-year old school record for most career rushing yards.
(Check out my Class A players to watch…)
(Check out my Class AAA players to watch…)
(Follow me on Twitter: twitter.com/mpopchock)